The author provided an outstanding graphical presentation of the main ideas of this book:
Prelude: Your Brain Has Been Modified
The author begins with the beautiful presentation of what reading does to people:
- Specialized an area of your brain’s left ventral occipito-temporal region, which lies between your language, object, and face processing centers.
- Thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
- Altered the part of your prefrontal cortex that is involved in language production (Broca’s area) as well as other brain areas engaged in a variety of neurological tasks, including both speech processing and thinking about others’ minds.
- Improved your verbal memory and broadened your brain’s activation when processing speech.
- Shifted your facial recognition processing to the right hemisphere. Normal humans (not you) process faces almost equally on the left and right sides of their brains, but those with your peculiar skill are biased toward the right hemisphere.
- Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.
- Reduced your default tendency toward holistic visual processing in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns.
The author proceeds to discuss other forms of the impact of culture on the human body and psychology and then links all this to the Protestant branch of Christianity.
The author also presents essential ideas of this book:
- Religious convictions can powerfully shape decision-making, psychology, and society. Reading the sacred scripture was primarily about connecting with the divine, but the unintended side effects were big, and resulted in the survival and spread of some religious groups over others.
- Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.
- Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate. In this case, by driving up literacy, culture induced more analytic thinking and longer memories while spurring formal schooling, book production, and knowledge dissemination. Thus, sola scriptura likely energized innovation and laid the groundwork for standardizing laws, broadening the voting franchise, and establishing constitutional governments.
- Literacy provides our first example of how Westerners became psychologically unusual. Of course, with the diffusion of Christianity and European institutions (like primary schools) around the world, many populations have recently become highly literate. However, if you’d surveyed the world in 1900, people from western Europe would have looked rather peculiar, with their thicker corpus callosa and poorer facial recognition.
Part l: The Evolution of Societies and Psychologies
I. WEIRD Psychology
In this chapter, the author defines who are the WEIRD people: “raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.” After that author provides results of multiple research results comparing these people with others, which identifies their specific characteristics:
- Self-understanding via roles, rather than relations,
- Propensity to feel the guilt as failure to meet one’s own standards rather than a shame – the failure to meet standards of others.
- High tolerance for relayed rewards (marshmallow test)
- Trust to others
- Obsession with the intentionality
The author provides several graphs comparing WEIRD people with others per these parameters and map for levels of individualism around the world, which is synonymous with the WEIRDness:
The author also provides a summary table for psychological features:
2. Making a Cultural Species
In this chapter, the author retells the story of Bill Buckley and his observations of the lives of Australian aborigines. The author refers to his previous book about cultural learning and the evolution of societies. The author defines the essential point of this chapter in such way:
- Humans are a cultural species. Our brains and psychology are specialized for acquiring, storing, and organizing information gleaned from the minds and behaviors of others. Our cultural learning abilities directly reprogram our minds, recalibrate our preferences, and adapt our perceptions. As we’ll see, culture has devised many tricks for burrowing into our biology to alter our brains, hormones, and behavior.
- Social norms are assembled into institutions by cultural evolution. As powerful norm-learners, we can acquire a wide range of arbitrary social norms; however, the easiest norms to acquire and internalize tap deeply into aspects of our evolved psychology. I’ve highlighted a few aspects of our evolved psychology, including those related to kin-based altruism, incest aversion, pair-bonding, interdependence, and tribal affiliation.
- Institutions usually remain inscrutable to those operating within them—like water to fish. Because cultural evolution generally operates slowly, subtly, and outside conscious awareness, people rarely understand how or why their institutions work or even that they “do” anything. People’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong.
3. Clans, States, and Why You Can’t Get Here
Here the author discusses the initial development of societies and their scaling up via intergroup competition development of the “fit” between social norm and institutions. Finally, the author presents five processes that operate intergroup competition:
- War and raiding: Any social norms, beliefs, or practices that generate greater cooperation, stronger in-group solidarity, or other technological, military, or economic advantages can spread via intergroup conflict, as groups with more competitive institutions drive out, eliminate, or assimilate those with less competitive institutions. Abelam institutions were spreading via this process in the Sepik.
- Differential migration: Whenever possible, people will migrate from less prosperous or secure communities to more prosperous and secure ones. Since immigrants, and especially their children, adopt the local customs, this differential migration drives the spread of institutions that generate prosperity and security, as more successful communities grow at the expense of less successful ones. This is what happened as the refugees created by the Abelam onslaught fled into Ilahita’s secure embrace.
- Prestige-biased group transmission: Individuals and communities preferentially attend to and learn from more successful or prestigious groups. This causes social norms and beliefs to diffuse from more successful groups to less successful ones and can drive the spread of more competitive institutions. However, since people often cannot distinguish what makes a group successful, this also results in the transmission of many norms and practices that have nothing to do with success, including things like hairstyles and music preferences. In Ilahita, the elders decided to explicitly copy the Tambaran from the successful Abelam. Along the way, Ilahita and other communities also copied the Abelam’s elaborate yam-growing magic, which probably didn’t contribute to anyone’s success.
- Differential group survival without conflict: In hostile environments, only groups with institutions that promote extensive cooperation and sharing can survive at all. Groups without these norms either retreat into more amicable environments or go extinct during droughts, hurricanes, floods, or other shocks. The right institutions allow groups to thrive in ecological niches where other groups cannot. This process can operate even if groups never meet each other.
- Differential reproduction: Norms can influence the rate at which individuals have children. Since children tend to share the norms of their community, any norms that increase birth rates or slow death rates will tend to spread. Some world religions, for example, have spread rapidly due to their fertility-friendly beliefs, such as those involving gods that eschew birth control or nonreproductive sex.
The author traces the development of tribes and clans all the way to premodern states as the process typical for all and shows its graphic representation:
Then he asks the question: why WEIRD societies move away from this path.
4. The Gods Are Watching. Behave!
The search for an answer to the question in chapter 3 leads the author to the Gods. First, he looks at behavioral differences between believers and atheists in “dictator” and other games. He then reviews the development of the religions as the necessary launchpad for contemporary societies because:” The psychological impacts of beliefs about godly desires, divine punishment, free will, and the afterlife combine with repetitive ritual practices to suppress people’s tendencies toward impulsivity and cheating while increasing their prosociality toward unfamiliar coreligionists. At a group level, these psychological differences result in lower crime rates and faster economic growth.” However, the author stresses that this does not explain the specificity of WEIRD societies.
Part II: The Origins of WEIRD People
5. WEIRD Families
Here the author begins a close investigation of WEIRD societies starting with the families. But, first, the author provides a list of typical traits:
He reviews the historical development of the family institution of WEIRD societies and recognizes a specific pattern that includes:
- Monogamous nuclear families with neolocal residence,
- Late marriage, with the average ages of both men and women often rising into the mid-20s.
- Many women never marry: By age 30, some 15–25 percent of northwestern European women remained unmarried.
- Smaller families and lower fertility:
- Premarital labor period:
All this created a very different result than the one observable in other societies.
6. Psychological Differences, Families, and the Church
In this chapter, the author concentrates on critical differences for each of which he provides supporting data and research results. These differences are:
- Kinship Intensity and Psychology
- Individualism, Conformity, and Guilt
- Impersonal Prosociality
- Prevalence of Universalism over In-Group Loyalty.
- Impersonal Punishment and Revenge
- Intentionality in moral judgment
- Analytic Thinking
In conclusion, the author presents a causal pathway for this global psychological variation:
7. Europe and Asia
In this chapter, the author demonstrates how uneven historical development of the church in Europe impacted the development of different patterns, summarizing it this way:
- The patterns we’ve seen in Europe parallel those we saw globally in the last chapter. The longer a population was exposed to the Western Church, the weaker its families and WEIRDer its psychological patterns are today. Except now, our comparisons within European countries leave much less room for alternative explanations. These patterns can’t be explained by colonialism, “European genes,” democratic institutions, economic prosperity, or individual-level differences in income, wealth, education, religious denomination, or religiosity.
- The effect of kin-based institutions on people’s psychology is culturally persistent. The adult children of immigrants, who grow up entirely in Europe, still manifest the psychological calibrations associated with the kin-based institutions linked to their parents’ native countries or ethnolinguistic groups.
- Some similar patterns of psychological variation can also be detected in other large regions, including in China and India. Crucially, while this psychological variation probably traces to regional differences in kinship intensity, its underlying causes relate not to the Church but to ecological and climatic factors that made irrigation and paddy rice cultivation particularly productive over the population’s history.
8. WEIRD Monogamy
In this chapter, the author analyses impact of monogamy on various aspects of life and even biology via changes in testosterone levels in men. This impact changed many attitudes from increasing equality because a king and commoner could have only one wife to applying intuitions and insights gained from living in monogamous nuclear families when forming towns, guilds, and religious institutions in the 10th – 11th centuries.
Part III: New Institutions, New Psychologies
9. Of Commerce and Cooperation
The author begins with a discussion of the result of anthropological studies with the use of games. Here is the representation of the results:
The overall inference is that typical Western behavior and attitudes are highly connected to market development and urbanization. Here is the author’s diagram explaining this connection:
10. Domesticating the Competition
In this chapter, the author discusses the power of competition and its impact on people’s psychology. As usual, it relates to military competition – the wars, but then it developed into the peaceful market competition. The author formulates it this way:” Europeans Made War, and War Made Them WEIRDer.” The author also stresses the role of religion, specifically monasteries, which, together with other voluntary organizations such as universities and guilds, promoted interaction between strangers and the development of trust between unrelated people. Here is the crucial point that author makes:” …our modern institutional frameworks incorporate various forms of intergroup competition that drive up people’s inclinations to trust and cooperate with strangers and may influence other aspects of our psychology. People learn to work in ad hoc teams, even if those teams are composed of a bunch of strangers. The engine of intergroup competition pushes against the within-group forces of cultural evolution, which often favor self-interest, zero-sum thinking, collusion, and nepotism. Our WEIRD institutional frameworks began developing during the High Middle Ages, as people who were increasingly individualistic, independent, nonconformist, and analytic started asserting themselves into voluntary associations, which in turn began to compete. In the long run, competition among territorial states favored those that developed ways to harness and embed the psychological and economic effects of nonviolent intergroup competition. Of course, no one designed this system, and few even realize how it shapes our psychology or why it often works.”
11. Market Mentalities
This chapter reviews how to market mentality expresses itself in some curious way:
The author also discusses time management, how work becomes virtuous, and high levels of patience and self-regulation typical for WEIRD people. He links it to the Big-5 of psychology, defines them as WEIRD-5, and stresses that non-WEIRD people demonstrate only some of these dimensions. At the end of the chapter, the author notes:” …we have explored the origins and evolution of some of the major aspects of WEIRD psychology. However, there is every reason to believe that the psychological variation we’ve seen represents only a thin slice of the total diversity that exists around the world. Moreover, in explaining some of this psychological variation, I’ve considered the influence and interaction of kin-based institutions, impersonal markets, war, benign intergroup competition, and occupational specialization. These likely capture only a small fraction of the myriad ways that cultural evolution has shaped people’s brains and psychology in response to diverse institutions, religions, technologies, ecologies, and languages. All we’ve done is poke our heads below the surface and look around. This psychological iceberg is clearly big, but we can’t tell exactly how big, or how deep into the murky depths it goes.”
Part IV: Birthing the Modern World
12. Law, Science, and Religion
Before switching to the emergence of the modern world, the author summarizes four key aspects of WEIRD psychology:
- Analytic thinking: To better navigate a world of individuals without dense social interconnections, people increasingly thought about the world more analytically and less holistically/relationally. More analytically oriented thinkers prefer to explain things by assigning individuals, cases, situations, or objects to discrete categories, often associated with specific properties, rather than by focusing on the relationships between individuals, cases, etc. The behavior of individuals or objects can then be analytically explained by their properties or category memberships (e.g., “it’s an electron”; “he’s an extrovert”). Troubled by contradictions, the more analytically minded seek out higher- or lower-level categories or distinctions to “resolve” them. By contrast, holistically oriented thinkers either don’t see contradictions or embrace them. In Europe, analytical approaches gradually came to be thought of as superior to more holistic approaches. That is, they became normatively correct and highly valued. Internal attributions:
- Internal Attributes: As the key substrates of social life shifted from relationships to individuals, thinkers increasingly highlighted the relevance of individuals’ internal attributes. This included stable traits like dispositions, preferences, and personalities as well as mental states like beliefs and intentions. Soon lawyers and theologians even began to imagine that individuals had “rights.”
- Independence and nonconformity: Spurred by incentives to cultivate their own uniqueness, people’s reverence for venerable traditions, ancient wisdom, and wise elders ebbed away. For good evolutionary reasons, humans everywhere tend to conform to peers, defer to their seniors, and follow enduring traditions; but, the incentives of a society with weak kin ties and impersonal markets pushed hard against this, favoring individualism, independence, and nonconformity, not to mention overconfidence and self-promotion.
- Impersonal prosociality: As life was increasingly governed by impersonal norms for dealing with nonrelations or strangers, people came to prefer impartial rules and impersonal laws that applied to those in their groups or communities (their cities, guilds, monasteries, etc.) independent of social relationships, tribal identity, or social class. Of course, we shouldn’t confuse these inchoate inklings with the full-blown liberal principles of rights, equality, or impartiality in the modern world.
Then the author proceeds to discuss Universal Laws, Conflicting Principles, and Individual Rights, Representative Governments and Democracy, and Protestantism as the WEIRDest religion. He then combines all of this into “Dark Matter or Enlightenment”
13. Escape Velocity
In this chapter, the author presents his view on how these psychological changes eventually led to technological changes and the industrial revolution. He specifically identifies the key technologies:
- Printing press (1440–1450 CE)
- Steam engine (1769)
- Spinning mule (1779)
- Vulcanized rubber (1844–1845)
- Incandescent light bulb (1879)
Another fascinating approach is the author’s positing “collective brain” that produced the contemporary technological world. Here is the graph of the growth of such brain:
At the end of the chapter, the author provides an excellent concise summary:” To close, let’s summarize this chapter on a Post-it. To explain the innovation-driven economic expansion of the last few centuries, I’ve argued that the social changes and psychological shifts sparked by the Church’s dismantling of intensive kinship opened the flow of information through an ever-broadening social network that wired together diverse minds across Christendom. In laying this out, I highlighted seven contributors to Europe’s collective brain: (1) apprenticeship institutions, (2) urbanization and impersonal markets, (3) transregional monastic orders, (4) universities, (5) the Republic of Letters, (6) knowledge societies (along with their publications like the Encyclopédie), and (7) new religious faiths that not only promoted literacy and schooling but also made industriousness, scientific insight, and pragmatic achievement sacred. These institutions and organizations, along with a set of psychological shifts that made individuals more inventive but less fecund, drove innovation while holding population growth in check, eventually generating unparalleled economic prosperity.”
14. The Dark Matter of History
In this chapter, the author provides answers to the questions he posed at the beginning of this book:
The author also discusses other factors that could have an impact on development previously presented by Jared Diamond. He partially agrees with this approach but limits its validity to about 1000 AD, after which it is losing explanatory power, especially regarding the industrial revolution. The final part of this chapter discusses the interplay between affluence and psychology, the role or lack thereof of the genetics of different populations, and a globalized future of humanity.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I find the author’s approach fascinating, very logical, and pretty convincing. However, I think that he overestimates the role of Christianity and later Protestantism in the development of individualistic Western societies and psychology. I believe that it comes from the original division of Western societies into the multitude of small polities competing and fighting with each other in all areas of life. This fighting occurs at such a level that it created a sweet spot between too much division that minimizes interaction between multiple polities and people and too much concentration into one polity that would suppress intellectual diversity. This sweet spot allowed individuals to move from one polity to another, interact intellectually, and develop human capital movable from place to place. In short, even since Greek city-states, long before Christianity, Europe provided some space for individual accumulation of Human capital. It demonstrated its value beyond the narrow stretch of one’s tribe.
Moreover, constant migration between polities created the flow of such capital between the polities. Moving to places with a higher return also supported the development of individualistic attitudes when people were getting much better off without their tribe rather than within. Another critical point is that Western society developed expansive legal systems of individual property rights well before Christianity. In contrast, such systems are still not fully implemented even in the contemporary world in non-western societies. The ownership is essential because no individualism is possible without individual property of at least some resources supporting nonconformist behavior.